Here is a problem with Lexington: It has always been such a good place to live that residents and their leaders have rarely felt much urgency to strive to make it great.
I was reminded of that again last week, when I accompanied 184 other Kentuckians to San Antonio on Commerce Lexington‘s 73rd annual Leadership Visit.
Like the other four cities I have visited with Commerce Lexington since 2008, San Antonio has fewer natural assets and more inherent problems than Lexington does. Yet, leaders in those cities have accomplished some significant civic and economic improvements.
The lessons of San Antonio were not only what civic leaders have done, but how they did it. Texas is a conservative state, but San Antonio voters have approved bond issues and tax increases for infrastructure improvements because leaders convinced them it would spark private economic development and create jobs.
The key, officials said, has been strong public and private leadership, a can-do attitude, a willingness to take risks and the ability to develop a shared vision and action plans that don’t fizzle out each time political leadership changes.
“Almost every project we have done … has relied on partners,” said Nelson Wolff, a former legislator and two-term mayor who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County. “It’s all about partners; it’s all about building personal relationships.”
“We have that can-do attitude,” added San Antonio real estate developer Marty Wender. “There’s always going to be naysayers, but Texans make things happen. When people tell me something can’t be done, I love it, because it means I can do it and they won’t try.”
What could that kind of leadership look like in Lexington? For one thing, it could mean dusting off all of the visioning documents and master plans this city has done in recent years, identifying common elements and developing a plan to make them happen. A good place to start would be to complete the Destination 2040 process with an action plan.
It could mean that Lexington’s business and political leaders create a united front to lobby the General Assembly to give the city control over its public safety pension system. The current system’s unfunded liability and outrageous disability rules pose a financial threat that only will get worse until the problems are solved.
Business and government leaders must figure out creative ways to finance the urban infrastructure Lexington needs to attract investment, development and jobs.
The streetscape and Cheapside improvements completed in 2010 have brought new life and economic activity downtown. The next challenge will be continuing infrastructure investment to support that, as well as the organic growth happening in areas such as Jefferson Street, National Avenue and the Distillery District.
It will take a lot of money to fund Lexington’s infrastructure needs, which include the storm water and sewer improvements we must make because past leaders didn’t face up to the true cost of suburban sprawl.
San Antonio leaders are now pushing for a 1⁄8 cent sales tax increase to improve public schools. Lexington needs that kind of local-option sales tax authority for its infrastructure needs. Business and political leaders must find the courage to convince Kentucky’s rural-dominated General Assembly to allow it.
Lexington has made a lot of progress recently in bringing more public participation and transparency to growth and development issues. The challenge going forward will be for leaders to listen to citizens offering different ideas, but not be distracted by naysayers with no ideas to offer.
This is a good time to be having these kind of strategic discussions. The recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process was one of the most effective in Lexington’s history. It brought together a broad group of stakeholders whose research and discussions led to a shared vision that departed from previous conventional wisdom.
Now, the challenge with the Arena District and other downtown improvements is to develop specific action and financial plans. We also must keep the momentum going even though these projects will require decades to complete.
Darryl Byrd, the leader of San Antonio’s SA2020 long-term planning process, summed up the challenge by quoting Edward Whitacre, who was chairman and CEO of AT&T when the company was based in San Antonio.
“It’s all about knowing what you want,” he said, “and getting there on purpose.”